The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chile’s presidential runoff pits Pinochet supporter against left-leaning reformer. Here’s what to know.

After voting to change the constitution, Chileans appear to be having second thoughts

People pass a poster for Chilean presidential candidate José Antonio Kast in Santiago on Nov. 9. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)
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Six months ago, Chileans elected a reform-oriented majority to write a new constitution. Last month, Chilean voters made far-right candidate José Antonio Kast the front-runner for presidential runoff elections on Dec. 19. Kast will face the left’s Gabriel Boric, setting up a sharply divided race that pits Kast’s open admiration for Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship against Boric’s alliance with voting blocs demanding a more inclusive and democratic Chile.

If Kast wins the presidency, Chile could be led by two competing sets of institutions: on one side, an executive branch controlled by an authoritarian-minded president and a divided Congress; and on the other, a constitutional convention dominated by the left and political newcomers.

Here’s what our research on Chilean politics tells us about Sunday’s election results.

Voters reacted to the gains of the Chilean left

The story begins two years ago. In late 2019, long-simmering discontent with socioeconomic inequality and weak human rights protections fueled months of demonstrations across the country.

Protesters demanded that the government replace the 1980 Pinochet-era constitution, reformed but still in force, which enshrines an economic model that combines free markets with a minimal social safety net. Demonstrators wanted a new charter that would guarantee justice and equality, especially for marginalized groups including Indigenous people, women and the poor.

The protests’ intensity forced concessions from current right-wing President Sebastián Piñera. Two elections followed, in which Chileans overwhelmingly chose change. In the October 2020 referendum, nearly 80 percent of voters supported a constitutional convention composed entirely of elected citizen-delegates. In the May 2021 elections, leftists, newcomers and independents won by a landslide.

Chile elected delegates to draft a new Constitution — and it’s not tilted toward the elites

Sunday’s vote for Kast signals an about-face — a desire among some voters to reverse the gains of the left over the past two years. The right has waged a disinformation campaign painting the convention as a radical, communist force. A prominent left delegate claiming to have cancer turned out to be lying, undermining the convention’s legitimacy. Demonstrators remain in the streets, but many Chileans are withdrawing support. They are worried about crime and security, and they are tired of the coronavirus pandemic and a sluggish economy.

The traditional parties gambled on the wrong candidates

Kast won 28 percent of the first-round vote positioning himself as an outsider, though he’s hardly that. He comes from a political family, including a brother who served as Pinochet’s labor minister. A former longtime member of Chile’s farthest right party, the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), he has served in Congress since 2001. He resigned from the UDI five years ago, and this year founded the Christian Social Front.

Kast lacked the blessing of Piñera, who wanted Sebastián Sichel, businessman and former cabinet minister, as his successor. In the primary held by the traditional right parties, including the UDI, Sichel coasted on Piñera’s blessing. But the rags-to-riches millionaire never gained favor among Chile’s social and economic elite, who jumped to Kast. In the three wealthiest municipalities in Santiago — Vitacura, Las Condes and Lo Barnechea — Kast won about 50 percent of the vote.

Other right-wing voters — likely those outside the moneyed classes — threw their support to Franco Parisi, an academic who became a radio commentator. His anti-system, anti-elite message won him an unexpected 13 percent of the vote while campaigning online from the United States, since returning to Chile would have meant detention for unpaid child support.

The left’s hope now rests with former student protest leader Boric, who placed just behind Kast with 26 percent of the vote. The traditional center-left parties did not back Boric in the first round. A Boric victory depends on winning them back.

Across Latin America, citizens and governments are clashing over their countries' authoritarian pasts

The next Congress is also sharply divided

The traditional parties took a beating in Sunday’s congressional races. Kast’s far-right Christian Social Front elected 15 of 155 lower-house deputies, while Parisi’s People’s Party elected six. If Kast’s and Parisi’s parties caucus with the traditional right, they will have a plurality in the lower house with 74 of 155 seats (48 percent), and half the Senate with 25 of 50 seats (50 percent).

On the far left, the Communist Party won 12 seats, enough to make it the dominant force in the left-wing coalition. The left and center-left parties together won 74 seats in the lower house and 22 seats in the Senate, giving them nearly equal counterweight to the right.

This division gives significant power to a handful of independents and legislators from small parties, who can now make or break the majorities needed to pass any policy.

Just 47.3 percent of Chileans went to the polls, less than those who voted for the new constitution and the convention delegates. Low turnout and victories for extreme right and extreme left candidates further suggest that voters are tired of Chile’s centrist parties.

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A Kast victory could dampen the convention’s reformist potential

Chile’s constitutional convention is led by Elisa Loncón, an Indigenous Mapuche woman who champions a more inclusive and democratic Chile and focuses on human rights and social justice. Among the convention’s first acts was declaring support for pending legislation that would offer amnesty and reparations to Chile’s political detainees, including those harmed by police brutality during 2019’s social protests.

Expect Kast and the convention to clash. Delegates have until July to produce a new charter, which would then go before voters in yet another referendum. Kast has promised that, as president, he would lead a “reject” campaign against any new constitution perceived as too radical.

Chile could dodge the authoritarian threat

Last month’s results show yet again that Latin America’s Pink Tide has ended. The left-wing governments that dominated the region between 1999 and 2015 have lost power, and countries have tacked right.

Yet for Chile, the differences between the right and the left are not mere policy debates. Kast has described Pinochet’s 1973 coup as Chileans’ “choosing liberty,” and in 1989 he campaigned to keep the general in office. At rallies, his supporters have added a new ending to the national anthem: “Long live Pinochet.”

Emphasizing Kast’s attachment to Pinochet may be Boric’s best chance to unite the center and the left in December’s runoff. The left has struggled to address voters’ concerns about law and order, the economy and social equality, while Kast has borrowed from Donald Trump’s playbook, drumming up fears of immigrants, communists and progressives.

Boric can remind Chileans their choice is not between the status quo or reform, but between returning to an authoritarian past or seeking a more democratic future.

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Pamela Figueroa (@pfigueroarubio) is an associate professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Universidad De Santiago and academic coordinator of the Nueva Constitución Observatory.

Jennifer M. Piscopo (@Jennpiscopo) is an associate professor of politics and director of the Center for Research and Scholarship at Occidental College, who researches gender, elections, and politics in Latin America.

Peter M. Siavelis is professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University with a research focus on Latin American political institutions, candidate selection, election systems, gender quotas and Chilean politics.